Exclusive Interview with MEP Pedro Marques: EU-Lebanon Relations and the Future of the EU

Within the last two years, Lebanon has undergone one of the most dramatic and swift crises ever seen in terms of its economic, financial and political situation. VoteWatch reached out to MEP Pedro Marques, S&D vice-president on foreign affairs after he headed a mission of an S&D delegation to Lebanon as part of their ongoing commitment to social and economic recovery within the country. Furthermore, we discussed his views on the future of Europe, through the lens of migration, autonomy, and security.

VoteWatch: You personally headed an S&D mission to Lebanon in September. What was the purpose of that visit and how did you see the situation on the ground?

Pedro Marques: The situation is obviously dire and hasn’t changed much for the better. It’s a disaster. We were there about two months ago, probably one of the worst periods because it was even before the new government was formed. The government was approved just a few days after we left the country. We were there because of the humanitarian situation on the ground, which is obviously very worrisome, but also the political situation. We wanted to see what we could do as the EU because you might recall that we had a debate scheduled in the plenary just days after this. So we wanted to be in Lebanon to really perceive the situation on the ground and to bring that input back to our debate and our resolution. We want to continue working with and helping the Lebanese society, at least through the next electoral process, which will take place in 2022. That’s a big hope for the citizens. But at the same time, the opposition has to organise itself and be able to be a contender to those elections. Fair elections would be an important step into a better future for Lebanon.

As you might know, Lebanon hosts most refugees relative to its population in the world. I had the chance to visit one of the refugee camps near Beirut, and the situation is even worse than that of the general population. So it was really difficult to leave that country with a sense of hope. Yet there is a young and educated generation, and some of them are still there in Lebanon. I hope that they might build a different society, as the old political system and its parts seem to be unwilling to change the situation in the country.

VoteWatch: European interest in Lebanon has increased in recent years, especially after the economic and political crises post-2019. How do you see Lebanon’s role in the region, especially that it includes all the regional conflicts within its national politics? What do you think the EU’s interests are in Lebanon and how should they be developed?

Pedro Marques: I think the country used to be a beacon of some stability, and there was some hope that the region could prosper and have a different future. Unfortunately, through this situation, the country isn’t changing for the better. I see the country mirroring the crises of the region, but I unfortunately don’t see the country being an actor for change in the region. It just has too many internal problems. Also, the regional powers are influencing the country and endangering the situation, making it even more difficult.

Lebanon could play an important role in attaining stability in the region. In the past, Lebanon was critical to provide some sort of relief of the situation in Syria. Stability in Lebanon also means better conditions for stability in Israel and Palestine and can also help in our work with Iran. So I think Europe should look at that situation. But for now, unfortunately, what I see as the main interest of Europe in Lebanon is to not allow the country to implode, for the authorities to lose any sort of capacity to manage the country. If that happens, then all those external pressures from the powers of the region could make the situation even worse, causing additional instability in the neighboring countries. So that should be the focus. And that’s why Europe is trying. We are really trying, France in particular. We are trying – and we should keep on trying to not let this country implode.

VoteWatch: The presence of over a million Syrian refugees has had a heavy strain on the Lebanese socio-economic situation. How do you think the issue should be addressed within the internal Lebanese context and within the regional context as the Syrian conflict has begun to calm down in certain regions?

Pedro Marques: If we talk about the situation of the region in terms of migration or refugees, Lebanon has played a huge role, first with the Palestinians, then with the Syrians. It’s really important that we take into account how important the role of Lebanon has in that matter. Yet, I sense that the Lebanese authorities really need some additional help to manage the refugee situation and to provide some additional stability to the country. This management of the refugee situation in Lebanon will have a big effect on the situation within Syria, because of the large number of recent refugees coming from that country. There is no easy answer to that because it’s not possible to ask those refugees to simply go back to Syria. However, with proper management, the assistance of UNWRA in particular, they have had a big impact on the ground. The European Parliament has been pledging, and fortunately, managed to extend the support to UNRWA and to not let the cuts foreseen by the previous American administration affect the mission. So we have to assist humanitarian organisations while trying to gradually change the conditions in the different, regional countries to resolve this refugee crisis that has taken its toll on the country for the last few years.

VoteWatch: The exploration of the eastern Mediterranean basin has yielded promising results as large gas deposits have been discovered across all countries along the Levantine coast from Greece to Egypt. What role do you think Lebanon can play in this new market as Europe is facing an energy crisis?

Pedro Marques: I have heard about the potential of energy deposits, and since Europe needs to diversify those sources, it would be interesting to explore those options. However, regional stability is paramount before investing long-term. As you know, Europe also considers gas more and more to be a transitional energy source and not the energy of the future. So, for us to profit from the region’s resources, and particularly, for the country with those potential gas sources to profit as well, we would need to work very fast, by providing conditions of stability and creating conditions for different energy sources. Considering the potential financial revenues as a solution to the economic crisis would not be my first approach. I would say we need to find other sources of wealth – after we stabilise the country institutionally. Politically, we need to find different strategies that do not only rely on this kind of miraculous possibility of finite energy sources.

VoteWatch: Lebanon’s security situation is teetering and a collapse of the security forces has become a real concern. Furthermore, the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion has been mired with controversy and the rule of law is being challenged by almost all Lebanese political actors. Also, corruption of the political elite has been under the spotlight as calls for sanctions by the EU have gained traction. What do you think are the steps that should be taken by the Lebanese government to bolster security and the rule of law within Lebanon? Do you think the EU can play a role in this, through targeted sanctions or other means?

Pedro Marques: It’s true that we have heard reports of people in the army and in the security forces that are more and more unsatisfied with their situation. Their salaries have lost 70 to 80 percent of their purchasing power in one year. At the same time, the clash between the political forces and the judiciary has been strong, particularly on the investigation of the blast. The judicial authorities must be able to do whatever necessary to lead a proper investigation of what happened. It is unacceptable that so many politicians have been hindering the investigation. The judiciary must be given the conditions to work properly because it’s not just about the port, but also about the accusations of corruption. Many establishment politicians appeared in the Panama Papers. There are ongoing reports about these people using the country’s resources for their own interest. These accusations could be unfounded, but we should give the judicial authorities whatever is needed to investigate and take legal measures.

When I was in Lebanon, we had significant discussions on the issue of sanctions on particular people in the regime. Fortunately, through international pressure, the authorities managed to form a government and to allow the government of Mr. Mikati to work, while acknowledging that it’s not a perfect situation, as he is part of and supported by the establishment. If the independence of the judiciary is not assured, if the elections are not fair, clean, and transparent next year, we will have to go back to exerting a lot of pressure on the authorities, by means of targeted sanctions. It’s not about sanctioning the country, it’s about sanctioning those specific people that are really putting the country in this situation. Let’s see how the authorities behave during the next six months.

VoteWatch: With Parliamentary elections approaching in March of next year (or June), how do you see the EU’s role in promoting democratic norms in Lebanon?

Pedro Marques: I think it’s important that we frame what the expectations are from international external action in terms of the internal democratic process within Lebanon. We should exert pressure and even use instruments of diplomacy such as sanctions, if a proper electoral process is not conducted by the authorities. We can also provide external support for the organisation of the elections if needed. Furthermore, we must conduct thorough electoral observation to ensure fair and independent elections. What we cannot do from the outside is to change the democratic situation of the country in terms of the parties that are there, and the support for these parties. That is for the Lebanese society to choose.

We also talked to the opposition. They are the result of the revolution and the citizens who said “we don’t want this anymore”. Simultaneously, we also saw that the opposition is not fully prepared for the election. In the end, it will be about the votes of the Lebanese people, and we hope that the elections will be fair and that the country can change for the better after. Observing the conditions for the election is all we can do. The rest is up to the Lebanese people.

VoteWatch: What are your plans for the next year?

Pedro Marques: I really hope I can continue to help my leader on setting the priorities for the S&D group. If you allow me to go a little bit outside the issues of foreign affairs, we have been pledging as a group, as a political family, that we need to face the climate crisis with boldness. At the same time, we pledged that we must leave no-one behind and this cannot be just a buzzword. It means that we need concrete political action that allows people to perceive that the climate transition is not endangering their lives to the point in which it’s unsustainable for them to have a job or or to pay for public transport or other matters.

We also need to be ambitious on the transition of energies, but at the same time, it must be affordable for everybody to have a decent living, So that’s a main priority for this group. All the issues of implementing Porto Social Action Plan: minimum salaries, working conditions for platform workers -these are really important priorities for the near future. We discussed the general situation of migration in the region, but if we see what is happening within our borders here in Europe, it’s obvious that we cannot continue down this path. We cannot continue to allow push backs from European countries – that’s certainly something to change for the better. So we are also much focused on migration policy. I would say that the issue of economic governance in Europe is a final priority for the next six months to a year. We are still in the middle of the Covid crisis. We don’t know how long this will take, but we know that Europe needs different economic governance and fiscal rules to recover. If we do not change these rules by next year, we will face an austerity crisis. What we need is recovery with sustainable growth and development.

In terms of external policy, probably the biggest priority for the future of Europe is to come to terms with Europe’s role in the world. This was not just an issue during the Trump administration but already started with Obama and his shift to Asia. It is now again the issue with Mr. Biden, who is almost exclusively focusing on China, even if recently his focus has shifted towards Russia again, seeing the Russian aggression as a threat. Europe must stand on its own. Once we have set our priorities, we have to have the capacity to be strategically autonomous. This discussion is a huge priority this year. There is a discussion on the issue of defence within the strategic autonomy which also includes energy, economics, and supply of emergency goods, which Europe didn’t have when this pandemic started. Europe will have to get back to terms with its own capacity to stand in different parts of the world. We need to look at the Middle East, to start reengaging with actors on the ground. While we have discussed a lot about Lebanon, we have to rethink the situation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, talks with Iran, and the future of Afghanistan, where people are starving, and it’s not only a matter of winter coming but also millions at risk of starvation.

There are a lot of challenges on the external front, the biggest is the strategic one. Who do we want to be in the world? What autonomous capacity do we want to have to be a player in the world? It’s not about confrontation with the US, but we should have our own say on the international front.

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